My father was a liberal humanist and a historian of ideas. He often read literary writers: he wrote on Pope and Swift. He believed that scholars should strive to understand the intentions of authors as they responded to contemporary concerns and debates. To our mutual dismay, I didn’t find this approach particularly exciting. I wanted to track subtle arrangements of words and images interwoven through literary texts. When I first went to college and fell in love with poststructuralist ways of reading, my father was amused and skeptical. He would challenge me to defend “ahistorical” literary studies in debates that went on for hours. I would argue that patterns of language came before us, preceding and creating subjects; he would insist that human agency and intention were primary, shaping any utterance we make. The debates themselves were pleasurable, but he never convinced me—or I him. I wish Joseph M. Levine were alive to read this book. He would cheerfully disagree with every argument in it.
It was something of an irony for me when literary studies took a historical turn. By the time I’d graduated from college in the early 1990s, historicism was clearly displacing deconstruction as the dominant model for the field. This felt like a narrowing of the intellectual world to me, a stifling. Deconstruction had encouraged a kind of intellectual pyrotechnics; my teachers had performed readings so dazzling that a physical thrill would run through me. Now we were being asked to situate literary objects in thickly described, local contexts, with an attention to Parliamentary papers and conduct manuals. I found it dreary. And yet, the ethical arguments that the New Historicists were making had power. Deconstructive approaches might be exciting, but they were increasingly called self-indulgent; historicism might feel laborious, but it was about power and injustice—serious business. Difficult new disciplinary questions took shape for me. If conduct books contributed as much as poems to a given culture, then why wouldn’t I become a historian like my father? And if social justice should be my goal, then could I justify a lifetime of studying literature?
Feeling ambivalent about literary studies, I went off to Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, to think and read for a few years, but probably (p.x) not, I thought at the time, to pursue an academic career. At Birkbeck, every scholar was a Marxist of one variety or another. All of my teachers insisted on historical methods with a political urgency that was new to me—and compelling.
The traditional Marxist attentiveness to long processes of change was especially helpful. When I expanded my attention beyond immediate local contexts, I grasped the massive and manifold disruptions that profound economic shifts had brought: the prolonged industrial revolution that moved huge numbers of people out of rural areas and into crowded cities, fundamentally reshaping social relationships and rapidly accelerating environmental devastation; the competition among European nations for new markets that uprooted and impoverished whole peoples, sometimes eradicating their languages and recasting their values as backward in a dominant story of European progress, a story that I now saw had shaped my father’s work and my own childhood values. I understood for the first time how claims to artistic universality and transcendence had been used over and over as political bludgeons and how cultural objects had been crucial participants in the making and remaking of the political world. There was no way for me to pass this off as uninteresting or irrelevant.
Back in the United States, fitted out with a Birkbeck PhD and a new academic job, I realized with embarrassment that my eccentric education had somehow allowed me to skip over any serious reading of Michel Foucault. When I finally read Discipline and Punish, it came as a stunning revelation. It remains my single favorite work of theory. Foucault prompted in me an unsettling series of questions about revolutionary politics. Radical political movements had shown themselves capable of squelching the concerns of women, men of color, and queers, as Foucault himself saw first-hand in the French Communist Party of the 1950s. He came to argue that when revolutionaries imagined newly just distributions, they were also envisioning new social orders, sets of standards to govern relations among bodies, ideas, and resources. Even the most radical new arrangements could entail their own painful, oppressive normalizations and exclusions. “Every power relation is not bad in itself,” Foucault said in an interview, “but it is a fact that always involves danger.”1 Discipline and Punish showed how even seemingly ordinary arrangements of space and time permitted certain circulations of power, while foreclosing others. It was Foucault, then, who suggested to me for the first time that organizations and arrangements were the main means by which power worked: politics was a matter of imposing order on the world.
It never occurred to me not to call these ordering principles forms. I, who had always been drawn to patterns and structures in and across texts, immediately (p.xi) grasped social experience in the same terms, using what seemed to me the same habits of thought, the same methods. I wrote a book about a temporal pattern that organized both narrative suspense and the scientific method in the Victorian period, and followed this with a book about structural tensions between avant-garde artists and democratic states. I understood all of these as forms.
It took me a long while to realize that this use of the term was not intuitive to other literary critics, who typically equated form with genre, or saw form as the exclusive domain of aesthetics. Form, for many literary readers, was precisely that which distinguished art objects from ordinary life. More and more this seemed to me arbitrary and misleading: if we were interested in containers and enclosures, then why not analyze prison cells or national boundaries, and if we wanted to understand patternings of time, then why not focus on factory routines? All of these were designed arrangements—deliberately crafted to impose order—just like art objects. Even those exciting critics who were challenging dominant practices of historicism with a renewed attention to form—critics like Heather Dubrow, Franco Moretti, Garrett Stewart, Herbert Tucker, Susan Wolfson, and Alex Woloch—were reading aesthetic forms as responses to given social realities. I wanted to know, instead, how both aesthetic and social forms acted in the world, and how they interacted and overlapped with each other. Literary critics, who excelled at spotting the difficult overlayings of multiple structures, who understood precisely how complex forms could be, seemed to be missing an opportunity to read social structures—politics—in the same alert, insightful ways.
As I read further about politics and form, I started to notice that literary and cultural studies scholars often assumed that aesthetic forms were tremendously complex, while political forms were comparatively simple. Powerful, even all-encompassing, but simple in themselves. And this, I came to believe, was not altogether wrong. Racism, for example, operates most often as a stark binary, a blunt political instrument rather than a complex formation in itself. But what literary formalists know well is that any simple order gets complicated fast once we start attending to the dense intertwining and overlapping of multiple forms. The best close readers are always attentive to many different forms at different scales operating at once. I began to track the ways that political forms try to contain and control us, while often in fact overlapping and colliding with other forms, and sometimes getting in one another’s way.
This attention to traveling, colliding forms then brought me full circle, to a critique of the historicism that has become the daily fare of literary (p.xii) studies. From the beginning, the emphasis on local contexts has troubled me. My teachers, colleagues, and interlocutors over the years have insisted that a historical perspective yields irreducible particularity, sheer difference, and that it is a grave ethical error to draw too close a likeness between past and present. Presentism, the name for this error, is a charge so serious in literary and cultural studies that it has brought many a conversation to an end. And yet, I have always thought, none of our research matters unless it is generalizable, unless we can learn something from it that has implications beyond its own time. Even if the most important lesson we learn is the specificity of each historical moment, that too is a general conclusion—one, ironically, that generalizes specificity itself.
But I have never been convinced that the main value of historicism, even for historicists, lies in the distinctiveness of past periods. The most historically minded scholars choose to study gender norms in ancient Rome or eighteenth-century global commodity routes precisely because comparable arrangements of power operate now: because gender and commodity forms still organize us, carrying their pain and injustice with them; because distributions of authority and goods continue to restrict life and labor; and because we can reflect on the contingency of our own ordering principles when we know that they have at other times been organized otherwise. The past shows us what is possible—and we return, again and again, to its arrangements: the ordering of bodies and spaces, hierarchies and narratives, containments and exclusions. All of these have mattered to us because these configurations are the stuff of injustice, and also because structures like these travel and persist, continuing to organize our lives.
This book, like many others in the humanities, is an attempt to think about how we might make our world more just. One of the places where humans have some agency is in the orders that we ourselves impose: our spatial and temporal arrangements, our hierarchies of value and distributions of wealth—our forms. I am not persuaded that smashing or evading these forms has ever been the only or the most effective means to advance the cause of social justice. Arrangements and structurings are too pervasive, and some of them—like a fair redistribution of resources—too valuable, to reject out of hand. Nor am I convinced that it will ever be effective to focus all of our attention on any one form, singling it out as the cause or basis of all the others. It is by no means clear that capitalism always produces sexism, for example, or the other way around. Some forms dominate others at some moments and then falter or recede. But why? Why do gender norms organize the workplace at certain points while at others a workplace hierarchy unsettles gender norms? These questions have led me to recognize the aleatory (p.xiii) possibilities that lie in the encounters among forms. The instabilities generated by formal collisions are a major focus of the chapters that follow.
What this book proposes, first and foremost, is a method. I aim to show that paying attention to subtle and complex formal patterns allows us to rethink the historical workings of political power and the relations between politics and aesthetics. Foucault was right to focus on the shapes and arrangements that structure everyday experience. But I have come to believe that he was wrong to imagine that these forms converge in massive regimes of coordinated power. The world is much more chaotic and contingent, formally speaking, than Foucault imagined, and therefore much more interesting—and just a little bit more hopeful as well. Literary formalists have precisely the tools to grasp this formal complexity and, with them, to begin to imagine workable, progressive, thoughtful relations among forms—including containing wholes, rhythms of labor, economic, racial and sexual hierarchies, and sprawling, connective networks of capital. For those who care passionately about unjust arrangements of power, this book argues that formalism offers a promising way forward. (p.xiv)
(1) Michel Foucault, “The Politics of Contemporary Life,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 168.